Utrecht Netherlands Review – A City with Strong Medieval Roots

Utrecht is a beautiful, manageable city and a city we might have missed seeing if we were not coming to meet a special person.  We happened to be in Paris for an important meeting and it seemed the perfect opportunity to meet a world famous artist who lives in Utrecht and who happens to have the same name as my husband. What a great chance to find out about Utrecht.

Our exploration began when our guide, Rene Sterk , shared his knowledge of Utrecht with us on a walking tour one beautiful morning.  Our hotel was located on Maliestrat, near the Maliebaan, a long park like area that was developed in the 1600’s to attract business ventures and foreign students to the university nearby.  We learned that the game of Malie was somewhat like golf and was very popular at that time and having the site where Malie was played successfully attracted business and students.  Currently there is a lovely path for walking/jogging, which is also a sculpture garden.  The area is very pretty and quiet and until about one hundred years ago, it was not a part of the city of Utrecht.

Royal coach in Railroad Museum

As we walked toward the city center, we passed the Railroad Museum (www.spoorwegmuseum.nl).  This is located alongside a commuter railroad station, which was never successful. The central station had connections everywhere and even now is the largest in the country because Utrecht is in the center of the country.  We saw a carriage used for the Royal family and it was actually put into action during the time of the Icelandic volcano eruption.

Walking along, Rene had some wonderful stories to share with us.  He pointed out some row houses originally built for widows, now converted to more upscale housing.  Along the canal we observed a class or artisans at work.  In the city center there was a house built for the only Pope from the Netherlands who served for only one year.  Before us was the Dom Tower, the largest in the Netherlands. We learned that this was separated from the church nearby by a freak tornado one year.  The bell tower is amazing when, on Christmas Eve the bells inside play.  They are so heavy that the players need to be sure the bells are played in rotation so as not to tip the tower over.

Although many people we spoke with pointed out that Utreht is like a small Amsterdam, it seemed to me that it has a character all its own.  Religion has been an important factor in Utrechts’ establishment and functioning. It has been the religious centre of the Netherlands since the eighth century, evidenced by its many churches. We were told that the energy and positive spirit we observed among the people in Utrecht is due in part to the large number of students present to attend Utrecht University, the largest university of the Netherlands, as well as several other institutes for higher education. The number of cultural events in Utrecht is second only to those in Amsterdam. Utrecht fills with visitors during the Ancient Music Festival that takes place annually at the end of August, this year from August 26 to September 4, 2011.

Watch for the Festival Oudemuziek 26 Aug-4 Sept, 201111

The Medieval aspects of Utrech’s history peek out everywhere.  The artifacts that are the evidence of Utrecht’s Roman beginnings are displayed in the city center. Quite recently, the ancient city’s burial grounds were discovered when excavation for the Grand Hotel Karel V Utrecht took place. Rene lead us to the only five star hotel in the area, which is in the center of Utreht, which is the center of the Netherlands, and it is a microcosm of Utrecht’s history, as well.  Toon Naber, Grand Hotel Karel V’s General Manager, became our guide around the hotel, proudly leading us around this amazing property.  It was under his direction that several ancient historic abandoned buildings became the special hotel it is today that offers history, culture, a range of culinary experiences and of course, the spa.

Toon Naber, General Manager, Karel V, our second guide

The hotel consists of different parts, including the Napoleontic wing, the Garden Wing and the farm building. The new Roman Wing, contains 30 new hotel rooms  which combine an air of Roman history with modern elegance and luxury. In this area there is a beautiful wellness centre with a sauna, steambath and swimming pool with a jetstream, as well as a seperate room with fitness equipment.

Buildings include a monastery dating to 1550 and a military hosptial dating to 1811 that were abandoned in 1989. One building stems from the 14th century and was formerly known as the Duitse Huis (German House). Emperor Charles V stayed in this building in 1546 with his sister Mary of Hungary when he attended the Chapter Meeting of the Order of the Golden Fleece. Since then, various famous historical figures have been a guest in this hotel and some of the rooms in the hotel still carry their names.

Opening eleven years ago, the hotel has gained status as a five star hotel with a one star Michelin restaurant, a far cry from the buildings in the center of Utrecht that had only walls and ceilings, and those barely stable. With the use of old photographs and architectural cues, the hotel was restructured into the beautiful property we saw, which draws people from near and far.  We enjoyed a lovely “Brasserie” lunch outdoors. (www.karelv.nl)

We had one more guide, the artist, Leon Keer, who we had come to meet.  With him we saw the Centraal Museum Utrecht.  We were impressed at the central role that Utrecht had in art in medieval times and at the terrific modern art collection in the museum.  Impressive, too, was a Roman boat.  Unusual was the three parts of the museum, Central Museum Utrecht, Dick Bruna Huis and Rietveld Schroder Huis.   This house is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and was built in 1924 and is characterized by the removal of obtrusive walls and the use of red, blue and yellow, combined with white, grey and black.  The museum has bicycles to use to get to the house.  (www.centraalmuseum.nl)

Even though our time was short, we were fascinated with Utrecht and would hope to return to enjoy more of what it has to offer; shopping,  “Trajectum Lumen” ( A Utrecht Tale of Light), boat trips, festivals and much more but especially its architecture and wonderful people.  Visiting Utrecht: www.visitutrecht.com

Photos: Leon Keer

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